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24 'Harmless' Comments That Actually Hurt Childhood Trauma Survivors

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Editor's Note

If you have experienced childhood emotional abuse or sexual abuse, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741.

It took years for me to identify that I grew up in an abusive and invalidating environment. Once I began to talk about it, I was often met with comments like, “I wish you could remember how loving your mom was when you were born,” and, “There are kids out there who are less fortunate than you are.” Sometimes the comments I heard had a more exasperated edge to them, essentially saying, can you please stop talking about this? without actually saying it. Things like, “You need to focus on the positive,” and, “You need to stop living in the past.”

While these comments (mostly) came from good intentions, the reality is they were harmful and invalidating. Just because my mom was loving when I was born doesn’t mean she’s off the hook for the abuse she inflicted when I was a child and teenager. Just because there are others who “had it worse” than I did doesn’t mean what I experienced wasn’t painful. And coming to terms with my past trauma doesn’t mean I’m “being negative” or “living in the past.”

For some, “harmless” comments like this might seem insignificant, and have little to no effect on adult mental health. But for many childhood trauma survivors (who often struggle with believing their feelings are valid at all), these kind of comments are actually damaging and can set them back in recovery.

I’m not the only one who has heard seemingly “harmless” comments about past childhood trauma. Because of this, we asked childhood trauma survivors in our mental health community to share one “harmless” comment they heard that was actually harmful.

It’s important to remember what may seem “harmless” to one person may actually be hurtful to another. No matter what anyone says, your feelings are valid, and you deserve support.

Here’s what our community had to say:

1. “Don’t be ungrateful. Your childhood wasn’t even that bad…”

“Literally ‘your childhood wasn’t even that bad.’ This comment hurts because something that could be seen as a small issue for someone else can also be the biggest and worse thing ever to someone going through it.” — Tess G.

“‘Don’t be so ungrateful. You had a privileged childhood.’ The assumption seems to be that people who grow up with money or opportunity can’t have been mistreated. If only that was the case. Having a privileged upbringing simply means abuse is more often or ignored or covered up.” — Heather F.

2. “But that was so long ago…”

“‘But that was so long ago. They (the person/people who caused abuse) have gotten over/forgotten it, you should too.’” — Ashley S.

3. “Have you tried forgiving them?”

“I have C-PTSD as a result of emotional, sexual and physical abuse. Well-meaning people have often said to me, ‘Just forgive them.’ I have forgiven them, for my own sake. This does not heal the PTSD, it means I have more mental and emotional energy towards helping myself to feel as well as I can, one day at a time. Wish people understood that PTSD is not a character flaw, but a medical condition.” — Donna H.

4. “It’s sad you aren’t close to your family. Family is so important to me.”

“‘My family and I are so close. I don’t see how anyone could be so distant from their own family.’ I honestly don’t think I need to explain why that would hurt. Because anyone who went through this would know. Since I’ve always wanted a ‘normal’ family, but I will never have that. Sometimes I blame myself, but I have to remember it’s not my fault.” — Taylor B.

“‘It’s really sad you don’t have a relationship with your mum.’ I don’t explain why, but it hurts and I wish people would think before they make this comment. Clearly there is a reason why there is no relationship.” — Esther L.

5. “Just think of all the people who had it worse than you.”

‘It could’ve been worse. Think of other people.’ It’s so invalidating! That one always got me. My childhood was so traumatic to me, and I know people have had it worse, but to me, that was the worst. Everyone is fighting a battle you know nothing about. Be kind, always.” — Tasha L.

6. “I’ve been through worse.”

“‘I’ve had worse.’ I’m sorry if you did, but I’m not you. My bad may not be your bad. And my strength may not be your strength. Don’t try to one-up and belittle me when I’m sharing something that’s difficult to share.” — Ash D.

“‘Your childhood wasn’t as bad as mine,’ like its a contest. Trauma is trauma. I got so many ‘they didn’t really abandon you’ or ‘at least you still have both your parents.’ It still doesn’t make my trauma less.” — Adriel C.

7. “It’s not like he ever hit you…”

“‘It’s not like he ever hit you.’ Just because my father never hit me doesn’t mean the years of emotional abuse aren’t bad. Actually I would rather have him hit me so I would know why I hurt. Emotional abuse sticks with you. Those names, the things they said — years later they affect me so much. Sometimes I don’t even know why what someone says hurts until I realize it’s what my father said.” — Kaitlynn L.

8. “Everything happens for a reason.”

“‘Everything happens for a reason.’ I am a much stronger and empathetic person today because of my trauma, but that doesn’t mean it had to happen, and that doesn’t justify anyone’s actions. “ — Alicia A.

“‘It’s all part of God’s plan.’ It always made me wonder why God would make me suffer or how vindictive/malicious God could be. At my worst, I began to hate God because of what He turned my life into. That line is meant to comfort, but it made me feel even more neglected than I already was, and this one cut even deeper because it was God, my Heavenly Father, who was treating me so poorly.” — Candice K.

9. “I know exactly how you feel.”

“‘I know how you feel.’ Unless you’ve been through the trauma, you really don’t know how I feel. Having a relative or friend go through it is not the same thing. So unless you’ve actually had the experience yourself, please don’t say this.” — Monica S.

10. “You’re an adult now. It’s time to grow up and stop living in the past.”

“‘You’re an adult now, just deal with it.’ Out of all the comments I’ve heard, this hurt the most as it made me truly feel that all I had experienced and endured was supposed to just leave in adulthood and I was responsible myself for it.” — Gemma I.

“‘You’re an adult. You can’t blame your parents for your problems anymore.’ People don’t understand that it is a lifelong battle to overcome trauma.” — Chisa P.

“‘Grow up and get over your ‘daddy issues.” It’s not exactly the same as those people that dislike their fathers for reasons like, ‘He didn’t spoil me the same as mommy.’ Stay out of my family ordeals.” — David M.

11. “Time heals all wounds.”

“’Time heals.’ Yes, time does heal, but if you have PTSD from the trauma, time seems to stand still.” — Alicia A.

12. “How can you say that about your family?”

“‘How can you say that about your mother/father/family?’ Uh, because it’s true. It sucks when people can’t wrap their heads around abuse bad enough that I don’t have a normal loving relationship with them. Just because they had loving parents, doesn’t mean all of us were that lucky.” — Jackyn B.

13. “Why did you let him do that?”

“‘You let him do that? That’s disgusting.’ It made me feel like it was my fault, and like I was dirty. I was so ashamed. And, ‘It happened so long ago, just forget about it, get a life’ makes me feel guilty that I can’t move forward with my life fast enough to make people happy and feel bad about still needing therapy.” — Ally M.

14. “Well… what were you wearing?”

“‘Well what were you wearing? Were you drinking?’ My ex boyfriend’s response to me after telling him I was molested. I don’t know? Maybe a T-shirt and shorts? I was 5, but I could’ve told you that if you would’ve let me finish.” — Madi P.

15. “Your mother will always love you because that’s what mothers do.”

Any of those quotes about how your mother will always love you because she’s your mother and that’s what they do… obviously not all of them.” — Beth H.

16. “Don’t be silly.”

“‘Don’t be silly.’ I grew up being told I was ‘silly’ and ‘stupid.’ I know that often this term is used by those who love us to try to stop us from feeling bad, but for me it just compounds the feelings/thoughts that I’m stupid.” — Lucy B.

17. “You’re acting like your mother.”

“‘You’re acting like your mother.’ No. No, I am not. I am communicative and nurturing. My children will never wonder if they are loved nor will they ever want for any of life’s necessities.” — Alexandrea G.

18. “I bet your parents want to see their grandchildren.”

“‘You will never have another mother. I bet she really misses you and wishes she could see her grandkids.’ Thank God I only have one mother because she is a horribly abusive person. And no, she doesn’t miss me — she misses having a punching bag! And I’ll be damned if she treats my children the way she treated me!” — Lindsey G.

19. “Have you prayed about it?”

“‘Pray about it’ or ‘God’s got it.’ I grew up with a mom who used God as an excuse to do unforgivable things. Though I am a Christian and do believe in God and prayer, those phrases especially from her make me cringe!” — Saga T.

20. “Your parents did the best they could.”

“‘Your parents did the best they could.’ Thanks for that feedback, Janice. I’ll remember that when I’m filling $300+ per month rotation of psychotropic medication to treat the complex post-traumatic stress whose origins started in childhood.” — Ashley P.

“‘But she’s your mother. She did the best she could. You should still talk to her.’ To me that’s like saying just because she’s my mother I have to tolerate the abuse and keep her in my life. It infuriates me. Unless you have lived my life, shut your trap.” — Brittany W.

21. “Don’t be so negative. Your mom was a good mom.”

“‘Oh but when your mom was sober, she was a good mom. Just the best.’ My mom was rarely sober. And she was the meanest person on the planet when high or drunk. She put my siblings and I in horrible situations, including physical and sexual abuse. And not having food for us. After my mother abandoned us and her parents had taken custody, my family would always say this. And it made it really difficult to talk to them about how I was feeling. It made it impossible for me to hate her. And it really invalidated any pain I was experiencing as a result of her abuse, neglect and abandonment. I spent the next 30 years thinking I did something wrong, thinking I deserved it. It’s just in the past three years in therapy, that I realized there was nothing I could have done differently that would have yielded a different result.” — Kristy G.

22. “Just let it go.”

“‘Just ignore it. That’s what I do,’ or, ‘Just let it go.’ I can’t ignore it when it’s thrown in my face every day and I feel like I’m still there. Everything — smells, TV shows, an object, even my own thoughts — throws me back into the traumatic events. I stuffed it away and ignored it for almost 40 years until my mind/body forced me to face it. By saying these things, it’s like saying I like being a drama queen or something when that’s the furthest thing from the truth. I want the triggers, flashbacks, nightmares, etc. to go away! Unfortunately, I have to relive it/face it in order to process it.” — Jessi F.

23. “I bet they miss you.”

“‘I can’t imagine not talking to or seeing my mum. I bet she misses you’ No. She misses the opportunity to bring me down and blame me for everything. She lied to me, she abducted me, she manipulated everyone around her. I’ve been through enough counseling in my life to realize I don’t need her in my life. I moved to my dad’s when I was 13, and I’m 28 now. I’ve finished my GCSEs, completed college and university. I’ve got a career, a house and a fiance… and none of it involved her!” — Lynsey B.

24. “Look how strong you are now because of what you went through!”

“‘But look how strong you are now because of it.’ This is a common reassuring say thing to say, but do you really think I wouldn’t be strong without the trauma? Maybe it’s just me, but I see the weakness it has given to me, even now at 38 years old. I’ll admit it did teach me what not to do as a parent but it didn’t make me stronger.” — Mandy R.

If you have a loved one who lived through childhood trauma, and are wondering what you can say to be helpful and supportive, check out this piece that outlines 11 truths childhood trauma survivors need to hear.

Originally published: August 21, 2018
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